Apple Cake with Sage Caramel

I…. wrote something? I did! I cannot believe how many months have utterly disappeared into the Covid abyss since my last blog post very early in 2021. I thought I would write so much during those quieter months at home when I had more time to bake, but somehow in the chaos of everything going on outside my quarantined apartment walls, I fell out of the habit of writing and photographing. Can I blame my ugly yellow kitchen that made it no fun to take baking process photos? Or the endless Zoom meetings for work that repelled me from extra screen time? Probably I should just allow for the fact that nothing has been normal for a long time, and unfortunately blogging managed to slip through the cracks for a very… long… time. I have been baking throughout these months, and I hope to keep writing regularly now that I’m reacquainted with my little corner of the blogosphere; when I do it, I’m reminded how much I love it. 

I have baked some things in 2021 that I really loved, from Sarah Kieffer’s pan-banging cookies (yes, I was a little late to that party), to mascarpone banana bread, tahini blondies, and butter mochi… and one of my absolute favorite discoveries of this year is Benjamina Ebuehi’s book The New Way to Cake. I am thoroughly embarrassed to admit, that, um, I, um……. (commence hushed tone) don’t watch The Great British Baking Show regularly. (I know, all admonishment and judgement is totally warranted, go right ahead.) I greatly dislike most cooking/baking competition shows because I think The Food Network has mostly turned into reality TV trash, and I miss the days when I used to watch actual cooking shows with, like, recipes n’ stuff. Now they’ve devolved into largely absurd stress-inducing contests with very little learning and inspiration for the most part IMHO. Or at least that’s the American style; The Great British Baking Show is soooo different and so very lovely. I don’t watch a lot of intentional TV these days, and the silly mistake I made was thinking that I could simply have this one going in the background of whatever else I was doing. But I was very, very wrong about that; when I have watched it, it’s so riveting and charming that I cannot get a thing done while watching it, and therefore I haven’t sat down purposely to watch it. (Does that sound as dumb to you as it does to me?) 

Anyway, at some point Benjamina Ebuehi and her fabulous book caught my attention in the summer of 2020, and I bookmarked approximately 9 out of 10 recipes; in other words, it was pointless to bookmark anything, because I wanted to bake just about everything. Her liberal applications of tahini and creative use of spices and unique ingredients was downright thrilling. I was intrigued and more excited to bake than I had been since the pandemic began. One of the recipes I was most curious about was this Apple Cake with Sage Caramel, which I first made last Fall. I like all of the components separately… but how do they work together? The answer is BRILLIANTLY. Apple cake with caramel is not necessarily revelatory in and of itself, but the additional dimension of sage is so beautifully executed that I’m not sure why I’d ever not match sage with apple and caramel in the future. I made the cake again a few days ago just to make sure I still loved it as much as last year, and I surely did; the best part was that I actually got to share it with lots of people since I was able to bring it to work! (Last year my school was in distance learning, and while working from home was dreamy for personal life balance, one of the downsides was that whatever I baked had no place to go except a couple of friends in close proximity.) While commuting and getting up before the sun are not life choices I particularly endorse, it is wonderful to share baked treats again with friends and taste-testers like in the Before Times!

So, this cake– I am slowwww in the kitchen, so it took me the better part of a day because there are so many components (…and dishes to wash). None of them are especially difficult, but it’s a lot of pieces to make and assemble. I promise you it’s 110% worth it, and you can easily break it up over a couple of days by making the applesauce, caramel, and apple slices on Day 1, and then do the cake, frosting, and assembly on Day 2. Or just make a long day of it– it is gloriously autumnal and I personally love spending a day digging into a recipe like this with a gorgeous and delicious cake to show for my efforts. The combination of flavors is divine– it is so well-balanced with just the right amount of sweet, tangy, woodsy, and fruity. It’s a really special recipe that stands out among the many cakes I’ve baked, one that I’ll pull out every Fall for a special occasion or simply when I’m ready to usher in Fall baking in all its splendor. It is my favorite baking season and this cake embodies exactly why.

A few recipe notes:

  • This book is converted from the UK version, and I found that some of the American volume measurements are a smidge off from the weights, so I’ve adjusted accordingly by calculating between grams and cups. Mostly I added a tablespoon here and there to the written recipe, and it’s probably inconsequential, but I recommend using a kitchen scale and the weight measurements for best accuracy.
  • I found that this cake takes longer than necessary to make in the order written in the book due to waiting for the applesauce and caramel to cool. I suggest making the applesauce and caramel ahead of time, which can be done the day before making the cake batter and frosting; just let them come to room temperature before using.
  • The recipe lacks salt in the cake batter and it needs it– I added ½ teaspoon kosher salt.
  • I bumped up the vanilla a little. Because vanilla.
  • This recipe makes a lot of caramel. Feel free to reduce the quantity that you make, or you can serve the extra alongside cake pieces. (Or, I mean, if you just grab a spoon, I won’t tell anyone.)
  • This cake doubles well in a 9″ x 12″ rectangular baking pan. Double the quantity of cake batter (and therefore applesauce) and frosting, but no need to double the caramel recipe.
  • I toasted the walnuts and fried the sage leaves for the top of the cake. We are not instructed to do so, but I think it further enhances the cake’s flavors and Fall coziness.

This would be a Thanksgiving dessert table showstopper; frankly, in my opinion it leaves pumpkin pie in the dust. I’m sure your tastebuds and guests will agree. ? ?

Apple Cake with Sage Caramel

Adapted from The New Way to Cake by Benjamina Ebuehi

Serves 12-16

For the applesauce:

  • 2 medium apples of your choice (I used Granny Smith), peeled, cored, and diced into small pieces
  • ¼ cup (60 mL) water

For the sage caramel:

  • ½ cup (120 mL) heavy whipping cream
  • 8-10 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

For the apple crisps:

  • 1 apple of your choice (I used Granny Smith)

For the apple cake:

  • 1⅓ cups + 2 tablespoons (175g) all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • ⅔ cup + 2 teaspoons (150g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup (120mL) vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 batch (300g) applesauce, at room temperature (from above)
  • 1½ teaspoon pure vanilla bean paste

For the frosting:

  • 3½ tablespoons (50g/just shy of ¼ cup) unsalted butter, cut into chunks, at room temperature
  • ⅓ cup + 2 tablespoons (50g) confectioners’ sugar
  • ¾ cup + 1 tablespoon (180g) cream cheese, cut into chunks, at room temperature

For garnish:

  • 6-8 fresh sage leaves, fried in 2 tablespoons olive oil for a few minutes until crisp (let them cool and drain on paper towels before using) – frying optional
  • Handful toasted, chopped walnuts
  • Extra caramel for drizzling

Make the applesauce:

Place the apple chunks in a small saucepan along with the water and cover the pan with a lid. Cook over medium-low heat for about 8-10 minutes or until the apples have softened and the liquid has been absorbed. Remove the pot from the heat and mash the apples with a fork until mostly smooth (okay to have a few chunks left). Let the applesauce cool to room temperature before adding it to the cake batter.

Make the sage caramel:

Bring the heavy cream and sage leaves to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, cover the pan, and let the cream steep and cool for 20 minutes. Remove and throw out the sage leaves.

In a different small saucepan (with high sides), heat the sugar over medium heat until it dissolves and turns a pale shade of amber. This is a dry caramel, meaning there is no water added; be patient and do not stir while the sugar slowly melts. Swirl the pan occasionally to help it caramelize evenly. Once all the sugar has melted and has turned a medium amber, slowly stream in the cream; the mixture will bubble up. Whisk constantly to make sure the cream is completely blended and then let the caramel simmer for another 30 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the flaky salt. Transfer the very hot caramel to a heatproof bowl to cool down.

Make the apple crisps:

Preheat an oven to 285°F and set a rack in the center position. Line a half-sheet pan with parchment paper.

Keeping the peel on, use a very sharp knife or a mandoline to slice the apple crosswise (horizontally) as thinly and evenly as possible, discarding the seeds. (It’s okay if they’re not completely even– in fact, I like to have a little variation.) The center slices will have a pretty flower-like design in the middle from the seed chambers.

Spread the apple slices in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet without overlapping them. Bake them until they’re dry and lightly browned, about 45-50 minutes; the edges will begin to look curly or rippled. Thicker slices will take longer to bake– check them often towards the end so they don’t over-brown. Place the sheet pan on a wire rack to cool.

Make the cake:

Bump up the oven temperature to 350°F and line an 8″ x 8″ square baking pan with a large piece of parchment paper so that the ends hang over the pan edges.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a medium mixing bowl; set aside.

Place the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a hand mixer) and beat on medium speed for about 2-3 minutes, or until the eggs are pale and thick. With the mixer running on low, stream in the oil– try to pour it between the beater and the side of the bowl to avoid splashing. Mix on medium for another minute until the oil has been incorporated, then add the applesauce and vanilla bean paste and beat just until blended. Finally add the dry ingredients and mix on low just until incorporated. The batter will be slightly chunky from the applesauce.

Pour the apple cake batter into the cake pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake is browned and springy, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. (This cake is a bit tricky– I have twice under-baked it at about 30 minutes because it looked done, but I’ve found that it really does need 35.) Transfer the pan to a wire rack and allow the cake to cool completely to room temperature in the pan.

Make the frosting:

Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar in a medium mixing bowl until smooth and creamy. Add the cream cheese chunks and beat just until smooth. (Don’t overmix because cream cheese frosting can lose its structure.) Beat in 3 tablespoons (60g) of the cooled sage caramel, mixing just until blended. The frosting should be thick enough to hold its shape but very spreadable. If it’s too soft or appears slightly separated (from the caramel), add more confectioners’ sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time as needed.

Assemble & decorate the cake:

When the cake has fully cooled, remove it from the pan and transfer it to a serving platter. Dollop the frosting in the center of the cake and spread it out in swirls and swoops using a small offset spatula, leaving about a ½” border around the edges. Drizzle some caramel over the cake, then decorate it with the apple slices (I usually have some left over), toasted walnuts, and fried sage leaves.

Store the cake in the fridge for up to 3 days in an airtight container.

Make ahead:

The applesauce and caramel can be made a day ahead (probably even a few days) and stored in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before using in the recipe. The apple slices can also be made a day ahead and stored at room temperature in an airtight container.

© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2021.

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